To be or not to be gay in Africa, that’s the question

Wednesday October 21 2009

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

When the last weekend’s issue of Sunday Nation reported that London-based Charles Ngengi and his “bride” Daniel Chege Gichia had become the first gay Kenyan couple to wed, no one would have predicted what would follow.

The story remained the most popular one on the Daily Nation/Sunday Nation website for a record three days. When it was eventually ousted from the top spot on Wednesday, it didn’t disappear altogether. It remained at number six.

It also attracted among the highest comments ever. By lunch time on Wednesday, 165 of the over 600 comments that had come in had been posted.

Not surprisingly, over 95 per cent of the comments were calling upon the gods to visit their wrath upon Ngegi and Gichia heads, and accusing them of having brought shame upon their families, tribe, Kenya and the whole of Mother Africa.

I bear no man or woman ill will, so I wish them a happy marriage. However, for all the flood of outraged comments, gay relationships are not “forbidden fruit” or as unAfrican, as critics make them out to be.

When I last checked, there were 11 African countries where gay relationships were either legal, had been decriminalised, or were tolerated: Madagascar, Congo, South Africa (most famously), Central African Republic, Cape Verde, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rwanda.

If you look at that list long enough, you begin to see some patterns. For example, there are 14 African countries where the death penalty has been formally abolished.

Of these, four also have a tolerant official attitude toward gay people; South Africa, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rwanda. In other words, the chances that an African country with a liberal attitude toward gays also has the death penalty is 28.5 per cent.

However, the chances that a country that doesn’t have a tolerant attitude towards gays also has the death penalty is 50 per cent.

Therefore, you are more likely to be hanged for treason (which is another word for being anti-government) in an African country that has laws against gay relationships, than one that doesn’t.

Equally, women’s rights are still in the dog house in many Africa countries. At the same time, though, an African country, Rwanda, has the world’s highest representation of women in Parliament.

THE TOP FIVE COUNTRIES WITH THE highest representation of women in Parliament on our continent are: Rwanda with 49 per cent; South Africa with 35 per cent; Uganda with 31 per cent; Burundi with 31 per cent and Tanzania. Of these, three (or 60 per cent) — South Africa, Burundi, and Rwanda — have liberal laws or attitudes toward same sex relationship.

Fine, I know we are stretching it a little, but it is not unreasonable to say that the best way to figure out if an African country has a high level of representation for women in official public life, is to check its attitude toward gays.

If it is liberal, then most probably it has a lot of women in its parliament and senior positions in government.

The other, admittedly better, indicator is whether the country is in East Africa. Of the five countries in Africa with the highest number of women in their parliaments, a record four are members of the East Africa Community. The black sheep, the East African laggard, in this regard is Kenya.

The subject of women’s rights brings us close home to the Democratic Republic of Congo. When US President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, a friend and Kenyan patriot, told me that “Kenya has now won the Nobel Peace Prize twice in five years”.

Because Obama’s father was Kenyan, he considers the man Kenyan. The first Nobel was by the environmental activist, Prof Wangari Maathai, in 2004.

If Obama hadn’t taken it, a strong candidate for the 2009 Nobel was Denis Mukwege, a doctor in Bukavu, eastern DRC. Mukwege has devoted his life treating rape victims.

In the DRC, it takes a lot of faith to believe that you can make a difference in that regard. According to a UN report in August, over 200,000 women and girls had been raped in the DRC over the last 12 years.

On Tuesday, in another report, the UN said that over 5,400 women have been raped in a single province, South Kivu, since the beginning of this year.

Dr Mukwege performs about six surgical operations on rape victims every day. So far he has treated 21,000 women.

The DRC is not a safe place for gays, either.